For the first few weeks of Steven Universe’s “Summer of Steven,” we took a break from the show’s recent trend of worldbuilding-heavy plot arcs for some lighthearted downtime in Beach City. This week kicked the show back into high gear, though—especially with last night’s incredible episode.
The last time we checked in with Steven Universe, I was looking forward to a bit of a break from the ongoing storyline of the show—the Gems contentious relationship with the villainous Jasper, and the threat of a homeworld gem invasion everlooming—to get back to some of the quieter, more fanciful periods of ‘downtime’ that the show specialised in in its earliest days, before its story-driven twist truly started unravelling with “The Return” in the very first season. This latest batch of episodes has mostly been about that—Steven Universe on an almost breezy autopilot, effortlessly waltzing along with its typical charm and humor but spinning its storytelling wheels a little.
And then this past week of episodes happened, and Steven Universe exploded back into action, a shockingly refreshing turn of events that culminated with last night’s 22-minute-length special, “Bismuth,” which flipped the storytelling script on the show in some pretty fundamental ways. But this week has not been all about Bismuth—we’ll get to her later.
In a roundabout manner, this week has been about resetting the core focus of Steven Universe’s antagonistic thread, re-establishing Jasper as an actual threat to the team and as a persistent villain, something the show hasn’t really had since a) Jasper first disappeared with Lapis at the climax of “Jailbreak” and b) since the show’s only thing close to a recurring villain, Peridot, changed sides.
The “villains” of the show have been left vague and nebulous for an extended period of time, so to have the focus returned to Jasper—and to actually give Jasper an element of mystery and her own quest as she becomes steadily more crazed by her desire to fuse again, hunting down corrupted Gem monsters to form her own army against Rose Quartz’s remaining allies—is a welcome one. “The Cluster” or “Homeworld” or even Yellow Diamond are all good existential threats that can hang over the wider story of the show, but moment-to-moment Steven Universe needed a tangible threat to focus on to get back in gear, and Jasper is rapidly shaping up to be that threat for now.
This past week has also seen a much appreciated renewed focus on Amethyst as a character—who has admittedly sometimes been cast aside to focus on the stories of Garnet and Pearl. Over the course of the week, but most notably in “Crack the Whip” and “Steven vs. Amethyst,” we’ve gotten to examine her evolving relationship with Steven and her own doubts about her role in the team. As the characters around her have grown in both the evolution of their story arcs and, particularly in the case of Steven, grown in strength and ability, Amethyst has sadly been left by the wayside a bit.
To actually turn that into an element of contention in the show—to have her feel jealous that Steven has come into his own in terms of his powers and his responsibilities to the Crystal Gems while she has become the “newbie” of the team—is a simple but remarkably effective moment for the character. It’s almost a shame that it was seemingly quickly resolved for now by having Steven and Amethyst duke it out (and discover they both have a lot to learn about themselves yet), but it was a much-needed spotlight on Amethyst’s place in the show’s dynamic.
And then, “Bismuth.” Technically marketed as the 100th episode of the show (if you, as Cartoon Network does, counts the show’s series of shorts as collectively one episode of their own), this celebratory milestone was used to advance the series in some major ways—ways that hopefully indicates what’s to come of Steven Universe’s future, as it itself matures as its protagonists have over the past one hundred episodes.
It wasn’t just the format that was alien—a full 22-minute that gave the show the chance to breath it rarely has in its usual 11-minute runtime—but also its titular new character, Bismuth. Voiced by Orange is the New Black’s Uzo Aduba, Bismuth is introduced as a “new” member of the Crystal Gems: believed lost when Homeworld was defeated five thousand years ago, but rediscovered by Steven and brought back, to the joy of her former compatriots Garnet and Pearl.
This itself would’ve been an interesting story beat simply as Bismuth is practically a personification of a period in the show’s lore that fans are obsessed with—the original rebellion against the Homeworld Gems, the period that Steven’s mother Rose was the hero—brought into the present story, an opportunity for more of the show’s vaunted worldbuilding to come to the fore.
In a way, Bismuth was that—considering how a throwaway piece of dialogue between her and Steven single-handedly discarded the long-running fan theory that Rose Quartz was a member of Homeworld’s ruling “Diamond Authority” by confirming that she was simply a soldier gem grown on Earth during the colonization process, like Amethyst. But most importantly, the “twist” to her character was an interesting—and necessary—mirror to the show’s own typical portayal of morality.
Steven eventually learns that Bismuth, to his horror, wasn’t missing, but forcibly “poofed” (the Gem parlance for when their projected bodies are destroyed, but not their actual gems, their actual corporeal form) by his mother due to her development of a special, sinister weapon that would target and eliminate enemy gem’s own gems, shattering them and permanently killing them rather than simply disabling them. Bismuth, so filled with rage and hatred of the Homeworld, was willing to do whatever it took—even compromising Rose’s moral high ground to ensure victory—had become something that the show had yet to play with: a “good guy” gone rogue.
That theme’s been played with in the opposite direction practically since Steven Universe had villains to play with—Peridot, the Cluster, and to a lesser extent Lapis, were all antagonistic forces of varying degrees that were “won over” and converted to the side of the heroes, villain redeemed to heroism. Bismuth was, for the first time, a hero willing to do something villainous to achieve victory—the introduction of a moral grey area that the show has shied away from in the past. Although it took Steven taking Bismuth’s life following his refusal to use her weapon, as Rose had before him, it was a crucial lesson for him to learn: just as bad people are capable of good, good people are equally capable of evil. And with Bismuth’s final revelation to Steven that his mother had actively lied about what happened to the gem following their disagreement, it was important proof that his much-vaunted mother may not be as perfect as he’d been previously lead to believe.
It was a surprising level of moral complexity that Steven Universe couldn’t have handled 10, 20, episodes ago—a testament to how much the show has really started to grow, both in terms of character but in its story. Let’s hope the next 100 episodes (who knows, maybe even beyond that count) can bring the show to even greater heights as this recent run of stories has.